Day #2, Part I : Haifa

HAIFA -- For a good stretch of Highway 4, wrapping around Israel's northwestern hook called Haifa, you can immediately spot two things: the vast expanse of bright blue ocean to your left and two tall white stone minarets peeking over the hills to your right. On the drive north, over the hump of the Mt. Karmel range, and you’ll find 19 concentric rings of luscious garden terraces tapering upwards consume the landscape. 

Baha'i World Center, Haifa.
(Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Despite the undeniable presence of these massive features in the Haifa metropolis, often neither of the religions associated with these structures is conjured in the minds of people when they think of the Holy Land. The Holy Land is often associated with “umbrella” religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but the nuanced voices of the minority diaspora are often glanced over as it falls into the “other” category of theology pie charts. 

The two towering spires of white granite belong to the Ahmadiyya community, a persecuted sect of Islam founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The expansive and meticulously manicured Baha’i Gardens are the intentionally designed work of the Baha’i faith’s international community. While one faith spoke of its war for peace within, the other actively advocated peace in the community without.

The gardens were our first stop today. “The shrine in the center is like the gemstone in the ring, and the gardens around it are the adornments,” said the volunteer guide, Douglas Baker. “The windows of the shrine are like perfect mirrors, reflecting God’s light.” 

Each element of the 150-year-long construction of the gardens was intentional. “The symmetry reflects unity, yet the varying flora on each level of the gardens represent the simultaneous diversity,” said Anouchka Venkadee, another volunteer (one of about 600 that come each year to run the gardens). The garden was the physical manifestation of a core element of the Baha’i faith—actively creating an environment of peace. A tour of the Baha’i visitor’s center confirmed this as the group showed a short video capturing the religion’s presence across 200 countries. The very international community of five million gathers regularly to promote peacekeeping policies to actively better their outward environment. “It’s kind of like this,” said Carmel Irandoust, a volunteer who previously worked with Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations, “We all live in the same street. How can we work together to make this street better?”

As the Baha’is actively advocate for peace in the outside community, the Ahmadis in Kababir talk of their war for peace within. It was a just short drive from the gardens to the Ahmadi mosque. Imam Falah M. O’deh greeted us and, learning we were journalists, wanted to be sure we understood something about Islam.  “Jihad, in the Quran, never comes in connection to physical war,” he said. “We fight to translate the meaning of Islam. This is the real jihad.”

Imam Falah M. O’deh
( Photo Courtesy for Eleonore Voisard)

Day # 2, Part II : Acco

ACCO – It is quite unusual to see rabbis and imams hug as dear friends, but in the ancient city of Acco, the unlikely has become the ordinary.

Rabbi Yosef Yashar, the Chief Rabbi of Acco, and Imam Samir Assi, a retired Imam of the city's al-Jazzar Mosque, spent the afternoon telling us about their dear friendship and commitment to interfaith unity. When Assi walked in the door, Yashar rose from his chair to embrace and kiss the imam like a brother. “In Acco,” said Yashar, “we’re different from other places. We believe each person — no matter their lifestyle or religious background — has the right to live as she or he sees fit.”

Acco, a port city in northern Israel just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, is known for its gleaming white stone city walls and intricate mosaics. Though the physical beauty is noticeable, it’s the city’s tolerant population that makes it remarkable. “We hate only one thing in Acco,” said the rabbi. “Hatred. It sounds like a slogan, but we really mean it and live by it.”

Over the past 20 years, Yashar and Assi have formed a genuinely close relationship, which, they say, has bolstered the relationship between their respective faiths. They told stories of visiting each other’s houses of worship, speaking at religious schools, and attending holiday celebrations. For Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the rabbi has traditionally been the second speaker at the celebration in Assi’s al-Jazzar — the second largest mosque in Israel. In Acco, where one third of the population is Arab, peaceful coexistence is a necessity. “Before we have our religious identity,” said the imam, “we have our identity as human beings. That’s what we’re trying to show in Acco.”

In spite of its impressive religious leadership, the city still has its own tensions and difficulties. “We had problems 10 years ago where religious extremists tried to derail the relationship between Jews and Muslims, but we have worked hard to get through it together,” said Assi. Years later in 2014, Assi went to Jerusalem with an interfaith coalition after the terrorist attack on a synagogue in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood that left four dead. Upon returning to Acco, Assi found that vandals, apparently angry at his calls for tolerance, had thrown acid on his car. In 2016, Assi retired from his position at al-Jazzar, but his successor is much less committed to interfaith dialogues. “The new imam is no longer going to go to churches and synagogues to wish people happy holidays,” Assi said sadly.

But Assi and Yashar are undeterred. “Not everyone likes what we do, but we have to do it anyway,” said Assi. “It’s the only option.”

After the meeting concluded, we walked into Acco’s Old City to look at Assi’s mosque. The minaret glowed bright green, and children played football and danced on the street outside. It felt comfortable, even as the cold sea breeze swept over our sunburnt necks.

(Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard.)


In Tel Aviv, Jews join with Muslims in vigil mourning New Zealand dead

As published in Religion News Service (RNS)

TEL AVIV — Dozens gathered outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday night for a somber candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of Friday’s (March 15) mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are a small, bright light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Badr said of the event, which was organized by Tag Meir, an all-volunteer Jewish organization dedicated to ending extremist violence in Israel, in collaboration with local Muslim leaders and Israeli-Arab college students at Al-Qasemi Academy.

“We must eradicate this sort of behavior if we are going to live in peace. I hope one day we will be able to walk in the streets feeling safe and free of fear,” Sheikh Badr added.

Other local Muslim and Jewish leaders recited prayers of healing and solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic, while nine Muslim students from Al-Qasemi Academy in Haifa held placards in silence, letting photographs of the slain victims and messages reading “Stop Islamophobia” speak for themselves.

Men participate in a small vigil outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Natacha Larnaud

The vigil was part of an overwhelming interfaith response to the attack during Friday prayers, which left at least 50 worshippers dead and dozens more injured. In New Zealand, several synagogues were closed on the Sabbath in solidarity with the Muslim community, and in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a fund for the victims of the mosque attacks, similar to last October’s crowdfunding campaign “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families affected by the Tree of Life massacre.

In a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Wellington, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that Friday’s attack was the deadliest in the country’s history, adding that investigators were racing to identify the victims of the shooting spree so that they can be buried as quickly as possible, in accordance with Muslim burial tradition.

“When fanatics make the most noise, our voice is silenced,” warned Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, director of the Beit Tefilah Israeli community in Tel Aviv. Midway through his televised speech, Gottfried encouraged the crowd to sing an altered version of the popular song, “Oseh Shalom,” (“A Prayer for Peace”), adding Ishmael, a reference to the biblical patriarch in Muslim tradition and first son of Abraham, to Hu Ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Israel v’Ishmael (he will make peace for us and for all Israel and Ishmael).


The power of music at a Protestant service in Greenwich Village

NEW YORK — The clock struck 5:00 p.m. when the Rev. John C. Lin stepped up to the wide, sand-colored, theatre stage at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village.

He placed the cream program guide on a black music sheet stand and welcomed parishioners as they hurriedly filled the red seats. He opened the guide, and read a quote from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”:

 As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”

He looked at the congregation and continued on with reflections. This time, with an ode to New York City.

“New York, you got money on your mind, and my words won’t make a dime’s worth a difference, so here’s to you New York.” 

He stopped reading, turning to an audience made-up of a racially-diverse set of young people huddled in winter coats. As they were settling in, Lin paused. Then, he started speaking on a subject all too familiar to New Yorkers: Success.

Success, he said, should not be the way people define themselves. Nor should one’s identity be based in his or her work.

They, he said, are defined by what Christ has done. He told the believers worship, through the singing of hymns, allows them to remember that truth.

Lin called on the congregation to stand. All stood, and flipped open their program guides to the hymnals.

Two women stepped up to the microphone. Four men on the back side of the stage began playing music. The bang of the drums became prominent, but soon enough, piano keys and guitar strums could be heard throughout the room.

The big-screen monitors hung on the right and left side of the stage flashed on. And as four lines of lyrics from the first song selection, Crown You with Praise by Natalie Grant, lit the screen, the congregation got ready to worship and act on the minister’s message.

As the drums thundered louder, the women began singing.

We crown you with glo-ry, we crown you with hon-or

Je-sus, we crown you with praise.

We crown you with song and dance,

We crown you with lift-ed hands,

Je-sus we crown you with praise!

Parishioners followed. Some reading the lyrics from their program guides, while others sung along looking at the screens.

The tempo picked up, and one word was repeatedly emphasized.

Singers: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Parishioners: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Singers: Je-sus, we crown you with praise

Parishioners: Je-sus, we crown you with praise!

The Protestant congregation praised Jesus. In the faith, he is the messiah, the savior for humanity where the believer’s identity is found.

The beat of the drums slowly died down. A transition was happening to a different song, and this one required a gentler touch. The piano keys picked up, and the lyrics on the screen changed.

The singer with the soprano voice began with the first line:

How lovel-ly is Your dwell-ing place, O Lord al-might-y,

For my soul longs and e-ven faints for you. For here

My heart is satisfied with your pres-ence.

With nearly half the congregation looking at their guides, and the other half looking at the screen, they sang the chorus for the song.

Singers & Parishioners: Bet-ter is one day in Your courts,

Bet-ter is one day in Your house, Bet-ter is one day in Your courts

Than thou-sands else-where.

Parishioners continued in unison, looking at the stage, the guides, the screen, and some, at others.

Those arriving late had to walk up the main aisle and approach an usher for program guides. The man smiled, briefly handing out pamphlets pre-made for the 5:00 pm service on February 3rd, 2019.

More people began filling in the seats, and the music once again transitioned to another song.

Rev. Lin looked on from the stage, also singing along.

(Top photo courtesy Redeemer Presbyterian Church of NYC)


A Muslim man's sacred job renting crosses in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.

Every day, Kenan walks the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, a route sacred for Christians around the world. With a smirk on his face and a cigarette in his free hand, he smoothly moves through the crowds of tourists and shop owners. But hauling the cross around Jerusalem in the path that Jesus walked is not a sign of devotion for him. The procession and the rental business are merely transactional trades for Kenan, whose family is Muslim. But despite his religious background, he’s the go-to guy pilgrims visiting Jerusalem rent their crosses from.

Mazen Kenan carrying a cross through Jerusalem. (Godland News / Vildana Hajric & Isobel van Hagen)

Christian pilgrims from around the world visit the Old City, a place rife with key historical Christian monuments and Biblical references. Israel reported a record number of visitors last year, with nearly 80 percent of the more than 3.6 million visitors stopping in Jerusalem. More than half of Israel’s tourists were Christian and 25 percent of those were visiting as pilgrims.

The Stations of the Cross, a circuitous path along the Via Dolorosa with 14 stops in total, is believed by many to be the route that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Tour groups of pilgrims large and small move from station to station, carrying with them hymn books, pamphlets with descriptions of each station, and, most importantly, a large cross.

On a recent Friday in March, one of the busiest times to walk the procession, Kenan followed a group as they started their tour. The group was made up of pilgrims from Los Angeles, New York or the Philippines, and was led by a man who identified himself as Pastor Joel from California. Kenan snapped pictures at every station, and when the priest took some time to reflect on the importance of the group’s trip, Kenan took a cigarette break instead.

The weeks before Easter are a particularly busy time for business, said Kenan, thanks to a combination of warm weather and the holiday season.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric and Isobel van Hagen)

“It’s always been my dream to come here,” said Dulce Guzman, 50, who had traveled from Fresno, Ca. to make her way through the walk. “I wanted to experience how Jesus lived. We’re exploring his life and time. It’s a remarkable experience for us,” she added.

Yvonne Amantea, a pilgrim from Los Angeles, was in Jerusalem for the first time. She walked through the streets murmuring, “Our Father, hail Mary, glory be,” as she held part of the giant wooden cross over her head.   Between each stop on the route, at least six people walk with the cross, she explained, so everyone gets a chance to hold it.

Bob Vega, 72, a retired accountant from Fresno, had started his trip in Bethlehem, then traveled to Nazareth and now was in Jerusalem to complete not only the Stations of the Cross, but the entire path of the life of Jesus. This was his 10th time traveling to Jerusalem, and his favorite spot along the procession is the 11th station, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. “While it’s important symbolically when I carry the cross on this walk,” he said, “the one Jesus carried was definitely much heavier.”

As Kenan followed the group making its way toward the ninth stop on the Via Dolorosa–called “Jesus falls a third time”–the midday sun beat down, and it was hard to hear Joel preaching over the Muslim call to prayer.

Kenan makes all of the crosses himself, mostly out of olive wood. He has around 50 and keeps the majority of them at his home in Jerusalem. Every day, however, he brings a few to the first station of the Way of the Cross and rents them out depending on daily demand. Though demand fluctuates throughout the year, the past couple of weeks have been particularly busy for him due to the Easter holiday. But when asked how many crosses he had rented out that day, he held up a single finger. “One.”

The business has been in the Kenan family for nearly seven decades. His father, who passed away about three months ago, started it back in 1951, according to Kenan. He took it over in 1999, helping to transform it into what it is today. Pilgrims can rent the cross for $50. To supplement his cross rental income, he takes pictures of tour groups and charges them about $3 per photo. If the group decides to use him as their photographer, the cross comes free.

Some, however, choose to avoid this rental cost and bring their own cross, hauling it in in pieces and assembling it right before the start of their tours. Shafik Elias, a Syrian Christian who came with a larger group, is one of those people. He brought his own handmade cross–carved of pale orange wood–in two pieces along with a screwdriver to assemble it. He even saved scraps of newspaper to help cover up the edges for protection during travel.

Pilgrims return their crosses in a courtyard located just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The courtyard, raised above the city, is a quiet and secluded world of its own. Here, another group – this one of Greek Catholic pilgrims from Nazareth – took a photo with the cross they had rented from Kenan. As they finished their tour, the leader of the pilgrimage said Kenan told him to just leave the cross in the courtyard. He would grab it later.

The pilgrims left the lone cross leaning against the ancient stone wall of the courtyard.

As published in The Media Project